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Home » News » Roundups » The Rise and Fall of GRC

Nothing to Sell

21 January 2006 08:24 UTC
A boomerang of bad karma if there ever was one.

John McAfee never minded people badmouthing him. And he never minded them badmouthing Steve Gibson either. John McAfee knew any publicity is good publicity. There's only one thing John McAfee could not tolerate.

People exposing a money trail between him and Steve Gibson.

You could call Gibson what you wanted - and people everywhere did - but you couldn't claim Gibson was actually working for McAfee. McAfee wanted his little angel to always look squeaky clean. Maybe an idiot, or a pariah, or a charlatan - but in relation to McAfee and Zone Labs, Gibson had to remain squeaky clean.

McAfee used Gibson back in his antivirus days. Gibson wrote the copy and stirred the pot and McAfee laughed all the way to the bank. After a while McAfee sold out for a cool two hundred million and laid low for a while. When he saw the emergence of the PC personal firewall, he went back into business big time. Double or nothing.

McAfee used to sell 'virus free' cards to the gays in San Francisco. This was before he ever started working in IT. For a better than nominal fee, McAfee would have you tested for HIV, and if you came up clean he would give you a card good for half a year. It made it easier for the gays to get around and play like they wanted and it made it easier for McAfee to make money.

Gradually he realised there was even more money in exploiting computer viruses and McAfee Antivirus was born. McAfee used to travel around the US in a Winnebago and give people free system audits. He'd even help them disinfect their computers for free. He wasn't charitable, but he understood how markets like this worked - and he would use that understanding later in the personal firewall wars.

Once he'd bought up his controlling chunk of Zone Labs, McAfee got his old buddy Gibson working for him again. A full year before the world ever heard of it - and long before most people heard of Steve Gibson - Gibson was hard at work creating the first 'up-sell' for ZoneAlarm: ShieldsUp.

The idea was simple and a complete cookie cutter formula McAfee had perfected in his antivirus days: provide an 'independent' institution or entity to draw attention to the issues which would become the ramp for the up-sell; and give the product away for free to home users to get the word out.

Back in the antivirus days McAfee had his own 'independent' virus lab. His top engineer finally quit because of the unethical nature of the business. McAfee invited all the other antivirus vendors to contribute copies of their products to the lab. Not surprisingly no one was interested. So McAfee bought up their products on his own, out of pocket, and turned over the licenses to the lab.

Each month McAfee would come to the lab with a new collection of computer viruses. The lab people were expected to test both McAfee's and everyone else's antivirus utilities against this mob. Naturally McAfee made sure before he submitted the viruses that his own product did a good job. And naturally there were other viruses out there that he knew nothing about. But that didn't matter: all the lab would see was how well his product performed with collection given them by McAfee. Needless to say the competitor products didn't shine and McAfee's own product performed nigh on perfect. Every time. And the media picked it up according to plan and McAfee's fortune grew.

And every home user got a copy for free. It was only corporations and government offices who had to pay. But they had nothing against paying - and wouldn't have risked an infringement either, not with the $200,000 fine the FBI can levy against them for each illicit copy of a program found and knowing McAfee would be ready to pounce on them. And in both cases costs would be passed along to someone else - taxpayer or customer - so who cared?

Indeed. And now by stirring the pot at regular intervals McAfee could keep people in a panic and keep them flocking to his office doors.

Things changed with the birth (and widespread use) of the World Wide Web. No longer would McAfee have to have his extensive spread of affiliates ready to take panicky calls from scared users desperate to avoid the latest Michelangelo threat: his site would handle the traffic. All he needed was to scare and stir the pot - the rest is something that takes care of itself.

Gibson once insisted in a conference call show to a bewildered Thomas C Greene of The Register: 'I'm not selling anything'. But he was. The entire GRC site was an elaborate up-sell for ZoneAlarm. At the height of the hysteria Gibson had nearly three hundred live hyperlinks to the ZoneAlarm product page, and although he did mention other firewalls (and the fact they existed) he kept the number of links at the bare minimum to be able to come back with plausible denial: one. Every other mention of a firewall at the GRC site was loaded with a hyperlink to ZoneAlarm.

Gibson established discussion forums online at his GRC site solely for the purpose of further promoting ZoneAlarm. McAfee hired on a girl often seen there as his own personal representative at the GRC forums. People who'd previously worked in a PR capacity with other firms under contract with Zone Labs were bought over. The whole thing became a sophisticated money making machine.

Betas of coming versions of ZoneAlarm were passed out to the Gibson Brown Shirts the way Jim Jones' henchmen passed out FlavorAid. The Brown Shirts squawked and talked and spread the word. Not a single one of these supposed 'beta testers' had anything to contibute - something they in their brainwashed stupor never realised. They were simply dupes of McAfee's marketing machine.

If Steve Gibson never got paid by John McAfee for what he did then he must be the biggest idiot ever in the world bar none, but the likelihood that this extensive and obscene marketing ploy was not a money maker for Gibson too is non-existent. One need only look at the facts. One need only reflect on how the previously primitive and unknown GRC site became 101% geared to promoting ZoneAlarm.

Gibson's attack on BlackICE wasn't his idea either: it was McAfee's. McAfee saw BlackICE as a dangerous competitor and wanted it gone. Back in those days people weren't really familiar with the concepts 'intrusion detection system' and 'personal firewall' anyway. McAfee wanted this painted in bold Sesame Street colours, burnt into the foreheads of the Brown Shirts, and there's no better artist for that than Steve Gibson.

When you don't know anything about anything, it's hard to know who does know something. McAfee knew Gibson can play on that to the hilt. Gibson never educates beyond the bare minimal - what he himself will struggle to understand - and his supposed 'free applications' are trivial exercises no one else, no matter how good of heart, would ever bother with - and certainly wouldn't hype like Gibson does.

What's really surprising about Gibson is how he, after so many years online, knows so little about operating systems and Internet security. When his website got attacked he couldn't handle it - he had to call in outside help. And to this day he's the only security expert in the world, self-proclaimed or otherwise, who runs Windows on his web server. Gibson runs only Windows because that's the only system he almost understands.

What's further surprising about Gibson is how he, after so many years using Windows PCs, knows so little about Windows programming and the Windows API. The WMF debacle he engineered is a case in point: Radsoft had a WMF tool for Win16 (Windows 3.x) so the user could create these metafiles in realtime and then play them back at any desired speed. It was really cool.

And everyone knows about SetAbortProc, because that's how you control Windows printing.

But Steve Gibson didn't know that. He's never written a real Windows application in his life. All he has is the code his SpinRite ghostwriter left behind seventeen years ago. And he's toyed with that code and created macros to craft program shells but he really doesn't know anything else. He's a journalist - and an unethical one at that - but he's definitely no programmer.

What's even more surprising about Gibson is that he, even with all his years of using computers, still doesn't know a single programming language.

Gibson can't get a job in the IT industry to save his life. He doesn't have any credentials. None. He can't document work in a single programming language and he can't document use of any operating system except Windows. All he has is some code left behind by a good-willed ghostwriter who gave him SpinRite and he's not exactly a fast learner.

The Windows API is totally documented in C but Steve Gibson doesn't know C. Other add-on technologies are documented in C++ and C# but that only leaves Gibson even more out of his depth. For all his years proclaiming how much of an expert he is at so many things, Gibson doesn't even know a single programming language. And assembler? Gibson doesn't know it and he has no choice: the little he knows is all he knows.

He won't admit assembler is wasteful - for if he did, he knows there's nothing he can do about it. He does know only full blown idiots will suck up his 'small is beautiful' assembler hype and that's enough: that's the demographic he's after. And he takes full advantage of it.

This latest trick he has - MouseTrap - is a 29 KB module compressed with a hijacked copy of UPX. It's hijacked in the sense that Gibson's taken out the signatures so you can't see where it's coming from. 29 KB for that trivial program is WAY too much. If Gibson knew how to program he could get that down to about 4 KB. But he doesn't know how to program and he never will: he's not a programmer.

Watching Gibson try to dissect the WMF flaw was actually hilarious, but the fact that so many full blown idiots would suck that up was nauseating. The Gibson Brown Shirts don't get it and never will. They're 'home computer security hobbyists', whatever that is. They're born with too little cerebral franchise, trailer park training instead of formal higher education, they have no lives, they love warfare, sheeple born to be led, and Gibson has them all in the palm of his hand. And without them he's just another forgotten never-was nobody like they are and he knows it. They deserve each other.

And Gibson doesn't mind that the entire world outside his Munich beer halls calls him an idiot. He actually looks forward to getting blasted in the press. He might not like it, but he knows - he learned well from McAfee - that any publicity is good publicity. His provocative way of bullshitting all over the place gets everyone pissed off so they waste web real estate putting him down. Which plays right into his pocketbook, if only he has something to sell.

Unfortunately Gibson's earlier claim that he's not selling anything is suddenly today ironically true. A boomerang of bad karma if there ever was one.

For McAfee's gone now: he sold his controlling share of Zone Labs for another $200 million killing and he's probably sunning himself on a tropical island somewhere, doing good and set for life.

But it's hard to imagine McAfee was generous with Gibson. It's hard to see Gibson still sticking his head out there, week after week, getting it chopped off more times than you can shake a stick at, if McAfee set him up at all as he did himself. No, McAfee tricked Gibson too. Gibson was McAfee's little punk and profited by the scheme, but what he got was pocket change in comparison. Gibson's been left hanging.

Like the jilted lover. Honesty amongst thieves. Gibson's out to dry. Suddenly, thanks to all McAfee's contacts in the media, he's got a website everyone knows about. He's got traffic. Podcasts come and he gets Leo Laporte. But Gibson's got nothing to up-sell. He's got nothing to make money with.

Yes, he has SpinRite, but he's had that and only that for seventeen years now. Few people cared for it then; even fewer bother with it now; the technology of hard drives has changed too much anyway.

SpinRite's irrelevant and all Gibson can claim for Leo Laporte after seventeen years is 'tens of thousands of users' - which spread over its seventeen years isn't enough to buy shit on a stick from the local flophouse.

And no one's going to ghostwrite any more software for Gibson either, so that approach is out too. And McAfee's not coming back. And Gibson doesn't have enough money to hire someone on anyway - and he can't risk someone would later expose him for the charlatan and fake he is.

All Gibson can do is take his SpinRite assembler kit and make trivial over-hyped applications that do nothing - and he has to give them away for free as not even his Brown Shirts would be willing to pay.

The possibilities are out there: with such a fanatical following, Gibson could make tonnes of money if he could just write a single non-trivial program. But he can't: there's nothing he can do except gawk at his dwindling bank balance and hope he gets the call he knows John McAfee will never make again.

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